Anthony Fauci has warned that America could see coronavirus cases soar to 100,000 a day, as concerns mount about the ability of the country to rein in the pandemic as states in the south and west see big spikes.
“We’re now having 40-plus thousand new cases a day. I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 a day if this does not turn around,” Dr Fauci, the White House coronavirus task force member, told a Senate hearing on Tuesday. “I am very concerned because it could get very bad.”
Dr Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, was testifying before the Senate health committee as Arizona, Texas and Florida see significant increases in Covid-19 cases that have forced those states to reverse course on plans to ease their lockdowns.
“We’re going in the wrong direction,” Dr Fauci said. He urged young people to wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines, and warned that the disease could spread dangerously in bars: “Clearly we are not in total control right now.”
Dr Fauci and Robert Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who appeared before the same committee, were also sceptical about American Airlines’ decision to book passengers in middle seats on flights, adding to growing criticism of the move.
“That is something that is of concern,” Dr Fauci said. “I’m not sure exactly what went into that decision.”
The warnings came as the Allied Pilots Association, one of American Airline’s leading trade unions, asked the US government to buy seats on American flights to avoid passengers sitting next to each other.
American Airlines, unlike some of its domestic rivals, never officially abandoned booking middle seats to allow passengers to practice social distancing on flights. Instead, it had set a goal of leaving half of those seats open as it tried to woo back nervous flyers. But last week it said that “customers may notice flights booked to capacity starting July 1”.
American is the most heavily indebted of the major US carriers, partly because of aggressive share buybacks in recent years. It had $34bn in debt at the end of the first quarter.
Dr Redfield said that while the issue was not “under critical review” by public health authorities, he was unhappy with the move.
“When they announced that the other day, obviously there was substantial disappointment with American Airlines,” Dr Redfield said. “We don’t think it’s the right message.”
American said in a statement: “We have multiple layers of protection in place for those who fly with us, including required face coverings, enhanced cleaning procedures, and a pre-flight Covid-19 symptom checklist — and we’re providing additional flexibility for customers to change their travel plans, as well.”
Eric Ferguson, president of the Allied Pilots Association, suggested that a decision to fly aircraft at full capacity would have the opposite effect — scaring off potential passengers — and urged the government to step in.
“Thanks to uniform social distancing, passengers would be encouraged to fly more, airlines would be encouraged to operate more flights, and the government would ensure the preservation of critical transportation infrastructure and associated jobs,” said Mr Ferguson.
Businesses across the country have been forced to recalibrate their reopening policies in the face of a new outbreak of coronavirus cases in the US south and west.
AMC Theatres, the country’s largest cinema chain, this week pushed back the reopening of 450 venues until the end of July, and Apple has closed retail stores in Florida, Arizona and other southern and western states.
As part of a renewed effort to stem the new outbreak, Dr Fauci and Dr Redfield urged Americans to wear masks — breaking from President Donald Trump, who has shown little enthusiasm for requiring face coverings.
“It is critical that we all take the personal responsibility to slow the transmission of Covid-19 and embrace the universal use of face coverings,” Dr Redfield told senators.
Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, said the US government had “parallel messaging operations” because Mr Trump was not urging people to follow the guidelines from his public health experts.
Dr Fauci said he was disturbed at images he had seen of people ignoring social distancing. “When you’re outside and do not have the capability of maintaining distance, you should wear a mask at all times,” he said.
At the hearing, Dr Fauci said there was “no guarantee” there would be an effective vaccine for Covid-19, but that he was “cautiously optimistic” that one would be developed based on information from early trials.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi